Benjamin Nugent, American Nerd

“Before I launch into a discussion of what a nerd is and where the idea of nerds comes from,” Benjamin Nugent writes, “I’d like to disclose that when I was eleven, I had a rich fantasy life in which I carried a glowing staff.”

Throughout American Nerd, which is equal parts cultural study and autobiography, Nugent goes to great efforts to convince us of his nerdiness: the book’s subtitle is The Story of My People, and its final section is called “My Credentials”.

The thing is, I don’t believe him. At most he’s an expat, having admittedly turned his back on Dungeons & Dragons as a scrawny teenager in search of reinvention. So while American Nerd is usually funny and sometimes brilliant, Nugent writes so informally that at times it verges on sloppiness, and I found myself wishing he’d get a little more rigorous. In other words, I wanted him to be nerdier.

The first half of American Nerd is an attempt to trace the roots of the nerd archetype, and here Nugent is at his most persuasive. He identifies Mary Shelley’s Dr. Frankenstein as the nerd’s earliest incarnation, and follows the idea from there, using a series of excellent diagrams to help make his case. He also gives the best explanation of the proliferation of hipsters—or “fake nerds”, as he classifies them—that I’ve ever read.

Yet the hipster section is also where I first noticed the flaw that derails the book’s second half, which is a string of case studies and personal anecdotes. In his analysis, Nugent leaves out a crucial element of hipsterism: self-delusion.

No hipster defines himself or herself as one, and I suspect Nugent, who spends so much time announcing his nerd status, has simply miscalculated which side of the line he stands on.

Whether he fits his own definition or not, Nugent’s mapping of the nerd throughout history shines important new light on this overly familiar character type. American Nerd remains worth your attention, even if it sometimes borrows straight from the hipster’s dictionary: would a true nerd call the logic of a Norman Mailer essay—or any essay, by any essayist—“sketchy”? I have my doubts.

Scribner, 240 pp, $23.50, hardcover

(review originally appeared in The Georgia Straight, July 10, 2008)